Engaging Political Islam

I read this paper by Shadi Hamid when it came out last month, but forgot to blog it. I think Hamid somewhat overstates the case that lack of democracy is the key political grievance in the Muslim world, but it's certainly an important grievance and this is a much more realistic take on what "democracy promotion" would entail than what one normally sees:

This report calls for a new U.S. policy for the Middle East that unequivocally gives democratic reform priority over so-called "stability." To be credible, however, such a policy must recognize and engage mainstream Islamist parties, which often offer the most effective and organized opposition to the region's autocratic regimes. Whether we like it or not, such parties are often seen as more legitimate champions of popular aspirations than more secular and liberal groups. The United States, of course, should not engage Islamist groups that refuse to foreswear terrorism or whose commitment to democracy expires the moment they actually win power. But our government must become much more sophisticated in its ability to distinguish mainstream and extremist varieties of political Islam, and in dealing with groups that have a genuine interest in democratic reform. To isolate extremists and cultivate democracy in the region, America must enter into dialogue with political Islam.

Unfortunately, the hostile reaction Turkey's AKP Party -- probably the Islamist political party the US establishment should find easiest to swallow -- has me pretty skeptical. In some ways I wish conservative types would just concede Andrew's point that there's a large "Christianist" strain in US conservatism, argue that there's nothing wrong with that, and then recognize that in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, any populist political movements are bound to take on an Islamist form whether or not Americans find that to be an appealing vision.

Photo by Flickr user Khoogheem used under a Creative Commons license